Slash turnover in half: NRC Health shares Three secrets to a successful employee mentor program
This article was published in LeadingAge California’s Engage magazine Winter 2019 edition. The publication can be found here, on pages 13-14.
Jalene Carpenter is the Director of Customer Success at NRC Health.
Not too long ago, as an operations coordinator for a long-term care organization in the Midwest, she saw some success herself. On her watch, employee turnover fell to just 18%, and 88% of employees reported high job satisfaction. In a field where annual turnover can reach 40%, that’s a remarkable achievement.
Carpenter’s secret? “It was the employee mentor program that brought it all together,” she says.
Mentors were veteran employees who took responsibility for onboarding new hires. They integrated newcomers into the community, and bolstered morale by creating a winning culture for employees.
It might sound simple enough. But as Carpenter will be the first to say, it wasn’t easy.
Here are three hard-won lessons she shares about making an employee mentor program work for any community.
- Set high standards
From the beginning, Carpenter made clear that she expected a lot from her mentors.
The position came with a pay bump to underscore new expectations; the application process was rigorous, requiring two letters of recommendation; and during selection, Carpenter and her team went beyond the ordinary institutional rules.
“When you’re considering who could be a good mentor in your community, disregard title, disregard their role,” she says. “Look for passion. Look for leadership. Look for patience. Remember, you’re looking for guides and teachers.”
These tactics worked. Only high-caliber employees, people that other staff looked up to, applied to be mentors—which is exactly what Carpenter wanted.
- Don’t just communicate—over-communicate
Here, though, Carpenter had to be careful.
To avoid rancor among staff who weren’t selected, she and her team had to select mentors according to strict, transparent, and fair criteria—and then they had to make sure that everyone knew just what those criteria were.
“I call it over-communicating,” Carpenter says. “We took two solid months to teach our mentor standards before we made any picks. That way, when we made our choices, our staff understood the rationale behind them.”
This preempted any accusations of unfairness in the mentor program and secured buy-in from the entire community.
- Involve mentors in program design
Finally, Carpenter’s careful to say that it wasn’t her efforts alone that made the mentor program a success. A transformative initiative like this, she believes, can never be achieved simply from the top down.
From the beginning, she elicited ideas from her mentor team in monthly meetings, and together they brainstormed ideas to make the program work. One idea was particularly fruitful. It was a simple, cheap, elegant way to help mentors stand out in a community: special purple nametags.
“Those nametags were as good as gold,” Carpenter says. “Mentors wore them like badges of honor. They felt conspicuous as leaders, and they wanted to live up to that. I never would’ve had this idea if I wasn’t listening to my mentors.”
Carpenter points out that if leaders follow the previous two tips, mentors will be some of the most enthusiastic, invested, and thoughtful people in any organization. Leaders shouldn’t let that energy go to waste.
Keep it going
Finally, Carpenter emphasizes that none of this can be a one-off effort.
“The single most important factor boils down to one word,” she says. “Consistency.”
It takes a continuous commitment to shift a community’s culture, to make employees feel like they’re part of a family, not just workers at a job. But creating that family feeling is well worth the effort.